School Desegregation Can Improve Learning And Race Relations, Seven-Year Study Finds

By Peggy Caldwell — September 21, 1981 9 min read

NEW YORK - Contrary to the assertions of many elected officials, including President Reagan, school desegregation can improve both learning and race relations provided certain practices are adopted.

That is among the major findings of a report released here last week by a national panel of experts who have spent seven years studying the issue.

“Desegregation creates opportunities and it creates problems; some school systems take advantage of those opportunities,” said Willis D. Hawley, dean of the George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University and head of the national research team that produced the nine-volume Assessment of Current Knowledge about the Effectiveness of School Desegregation Strategies.

The massive study, sponsored by the U. S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the National Institute of Education, is considered the most comprehensive ever undertaken on factors that can make school desegregation succeed or fail.

Written by 16 of the top researchers in the field, the report synthesizes the findings of some 1,200 studies and the experiences of leaders in school districts that have undergone desegregation. The new installment took two years to prepare, at a cost of approximately $250,000.

Paramount among effective strategies, the report says, are desegregating schools at the earliest possible grade, creating an intimate climate in the schools, and expecting students to meet high standards.

Yet such measures often are overlooked in the confusion and political unrest that often accompany desegregation, Mr. Hawley said at a news conference. Thus, desegregation has been less successful in some communities than it might have been, he added.

The Reagan Administration, members of Congress, and some state legislatures have cited such “failures” in their efforts to curtail busing. But even if those efforts succeed in preventing the imposition of new busing plans, Mr. Hawley said, they do not make the study moot.

“Regardless of what this Administration does,” he asserted, ''there will be hundreds of school districts and millions of children involved in school desegregation” because of state and federal court orders. “They need effective schools,” he said.

While the report concentrates on strategies, rather than advocating desegregation as a policy, “the evidence is rather clear” that desegregation has had desirable effects, Mr. Hawley said.

Even in the face of “white flight,” particularly from urban districts, the new study provides ample evidence that desegregation has substantially reduced racial isolation.

Furthermore, according to the researcher, the report demonstrates that the academic achievement of minority children usually improves after desegregation, and whites’ achievement is not harmed--even though a disproportionate number of highly able white students leave desegregated systems.

“Whether school desegregation is successful or not depends on what you think the goals of desegregation are,” the researcher said.

“It’s clearly not been as successful as its advocates had hoped it would be,” Mr. Hawley conceded. “We expect desegregation to do things that no single school policy can do.”

For this reason, he said, the reassignment of pupils must be buttressed by instructional and organizational changes such as those recommended in the report.

The strategies analyzed in the report have been effective in some school districts and could improve the chances of success in others, he suggested.

But he cautioned that although the researchers “feel there’s substantial reason to believe these strategies can be effective, they carry no guarantees.”

On the other hand, Mr. Hawley said, while the study “doesn’t prove that desegregation works, it does provide a basis for challenging claims that desegregation does not and cannot result in effective education.”

Among the panel’s findings and recommendations:

  • Desegregate at the earliest possible grade. Research has consistently shown thatboth academic performance and race relations are best when students of different races begin attending school together at an early age.

Junior high school, Mr. Hawley added, “is absolutely the worst time to do it. So many other things are going on in the kids’ lives then.”

  • Try to place a “critical mass” of each racial group in each school and classroom. Children appear to feel most secure when they are not in a very small minority. Thus, the researchers say, each classroom probably should contain at least 10 to 20 percent of each racial group. The plan should take into account the instructional needs of all minority groups, including children with limited proficiency in English.
  • Back up voluntary desegregation plans, such as magnet schools, with mandatory reassignments. Except in school districts with very small minority populations, magnet schools and other voluntary approaches alone have not been found effective in reducing the isolation of racial groups. Recent developments in Los Angeles illustrate this point: This fall, now that the mandatory busing plan has been dismantled, the number of white applicants to inner-city magnet schools has fallen off by approximately 50 percent.
  • Encourage students to mingle both in classes and in extracurricular activities. The study says rigid “tracking” into ability groups is most harmful to small children and often results in segregation among classrooms. If ability-grouping is necessary in some subjects, the report says, students should be able to move into higher-level groups when their achievement merits it. And special efforts should be made to increase interracial contact in other classes and in extracurricular activities.
  • “We used to think human-relations programs weren’t very effective, and we were right,” Mr. Hawley said. “They were kind of schmaltzy. We talked a lot about loving one another . . . and had a picture of Martin Luther King.” Human-relations programs can be effective, he said, if they are comprehensive, are tailored to the individual school, and encourage students “to talk about the conflicts.”

  • Recruit and provide adequate training for a racially diverse school staff. Few school systems, Mr. Hawley said, have taken in-service training seriously. Trainers should not attempt to change the attitudes of teachers and administrators, the report says. Instead, in-service training should respond to the problems encountered by staff members and should emphasize practical information, materials, and techniques.
  • One teaching technique that has been successful in desegregated schools, Mr. Hawley said, is “cooperative group-learning.” This method consists of organizing students into learning teams to minimize competition, ''but it still holds individual students accountable to improve their performance,” Mr. Hawley said.

  • Try to create a “sense of community” within schools by reducing the number of adults with whom children come into contact. This can be accomplished by reducing school or class Size or by avoiding over-specialization of the school staff. The study also recommends that the long-term stability of schools be kept in mind when student-assignment plans are drawn.
  • Discipline is crucial in newly desegregated schools, Mr. Hawley said, because of the potential for racial conflict. He suggested “setting standards for discipline, making them very clear very early in the school year, enforcing them rigorously, enforcing them fairly, and making it clear that you’re not going to tolerate any nonsense.”

  • To the extent possible, involve parents both in the development of the desegregation plan and in the education of their children. Parents seem to fear that they will lose control over their children’s education when the children are bused out of the neighborhood, the report says. The researchers recommend that parents be given several opportunities to visit their children’s new schools beforehand; that parent-teacher conferences be held frequently near the students’ homes, even if they live far from the school; and that the school system maintain contact with parents who have withdrawn their children from the schools.
  • Minimize “white flight” by putting the plan into effect all at once, if possible. The authors concede that “white flight” often results from mandatory student reassignments and particularly from the busing of white students into minority neighborhoods. But, they add, “the more warning people are given about desegregation, the more white flight results.” Thus, they say, phased-in plans which give the impression of long-term instability are to be avoided.
  • White flight also seems to be exacerbated when white students are bused into minority neighborhoods, the report says. “One-way busing” of minority students to white areas does not appear to harm minority students, Mr. Hawley said, but it often is perceived as unfair and may erode minorities’ support for desegregation.

  • Promote housing integration. Some school districts have arranged student-assignment plans to “reward” integrated neighborhoods by making them exempt from busing. This technique has been found to stabilize some urban neighborhoods, to encourage minority families to move to formerly all-white areas, and eventually to reduce the need for busing. A school system undergoing desegregation should establish an office concerned with housing integration, the report suggests, and should seek the cooperation of state and municipal housing agencies.
  • Prepare the community by enlisting the support of neighborhood leaders. “People don’t care if the Chamber of Commerce supports it, although it’s nice if it does,” Mr. Hawley said. “What they really want to know is what the minister thinks, what the person down the street thinks.”
  • A Practical Guide

    The fourth volume of the study, written by Meyer Weinberg of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, may be the most valuable to the teachers, administrators, and parents who live with the day-today problems of desegregation.

    Entitled A Practical Guide to Desegregation: Sources, Materials, and Contacts, Mr. Weinberg’s volume contains bibliographies and lists of experts on virtually every aspect of desegregation, from student-assignment plans to teaching techniques.

    Other volumes include a review of empirical research; a review of qualitative research, including the opinions of practitioners and policymakers; an analysis of 10 important court decisions on desegregation; interviews with local and national experts; a review of actions by state governments; agendas for future research on effective strategies; and an extensive bibliography on strategies that have been found effective.

    Copies of individual volumes are available at varying prices from the Vanderbilt University Center for Education and Human Development Policy. Inquiries should be addressed to the center, Box 508, Peabody College, Nashville, Tenn., 37203. Telephone: (615) 322-8543.

    A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 1981 edition of Education Week